Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the City of Hampton and three of its police officers for violating the free speech rights of two street preachers. In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of Don Karns and Nathan Magnusen, Rutherford Institute attorneys are challenging a Hampton, Va., law restricting voice amplifiers that was used to cite, convict and arrest the street preachers for sharing their message amidst crowds gathered for the City’s Hampton Bay Days. The complaint alleges that the noise ordinance that was the basis for the citations and subsequent prosecution of Karns and Magnusen is an unreasonable, vague and overbroad regulation of constitutionally-protected speech and requests that the court strike down the law.
“The United States has historically stood for unfettered free speech, which is vital to a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the tendency on the part of government and law enforcement officials to purge dissent has largely undermined the First Amendment’s safeguards for political free speech,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Whether you’re talking about a noise ordinance or a so-called free speech zone, the message from government officials is the same—there is no longer any such thing as unfettered free speech in America today.”
Don Karns and Nathan Magnusen are street preachers who regularly engage in free speech activities on sidewalks and streets as an expression of their sincerely held religious beliefs. On or about September 6, 2013, the two men engaged attended Hampton Bay Days, a festival that used to be held in downtown Hampton which attracted large crowds and numerous exhibitors. Because the ambient noise makes communication difficult, Karns and Magnusen used small amplifiers to moderately increase the volume of their voices so that their message could be heard. Although the pair conducted themselves lawfully, the complaint alleges that they were approached by two Hampton police officers who threatened to arrest them and issue criminal summonses to them if they did not stop using the amplifiers. When Karns and Magnusen failed to comply, Karns was issued a summons for “loud noise” in violation of the City’s noise ordinance. Magnusen was arrested for not producing a license or identifying himself to the satisfaction of the police officers, transported to Hampton City Jail, and subsequently issued a summons for operating a sound device without a permit in violation of the City code.
Although the preachers were initially convicted on the charges, the charges were eventually dropped after they appealed. Magnusen returned to the Hampton Bay Days in September 2014 and was again cited for using an amplifier, but the charge was again dropped. In filing suit against the City and its police officers on behalf of the street preachers, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the restriction on amplifiers applied by the City in this case unreasonably interferes with the First Amendment rights of citizens to communicate with others in a public forum. Attorney Steve C. Taylor of Chesapeake, Va., is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Don Karns’ and Nathan Magnusen’s First Amendment rights.